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Why burning ivory won't warm up the economy

By XN Iraki | May 1st 2016

Yesterday, tonnes of ivory went up in smoke. It had happened before as part of the government effort to reduce poaching and conserve the elephant, an animal indigenous to Kenya, other Africa countries and beyond.

If you have ever watched an elephant live, you need no conviction why this animal needs protection.

Burning ivory to make it useless has become a popular method of discouraging poaching in Kenya, a lucrative business that only rivals drug and human trafficking.

From a legal perspective, one could ask what happens if the evidence in your case is burned. Were there no cases behind that ivory?

Would conservation efforts not be more effective if we knew who owned all that ivory being burnt? Can you imagine talking about corruption cases without naming the culprits?

Back to our question; does burning ivory make economic sense?

Poaching is hard to eliminate because of the money involved. It is like bank robbery, the higher the risk, the higher the returns. In poaching, you can use the proceeds to unclog the supply chain right from killing the elephant to the final ivory buyer.

The profitability of ivory, just like drugs, results from mismatch between supply and demand. The demand is so high that the only way to ration out the low supply of ivory is to raise the price. The same way matatus raise fare when it rains when everyone is on a rush to get home, raising the demand for transport.

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The thinking in burning seems to be that if you reduce the ivory to ashes, you reduce the supply and starve of the demand side. But wait a minute.

Burning makes the poaching more lucrative because you reduce the supply while the demand remains the same or goes higher. In fact, releasing the tonnes of ivory into the market would have been a more effective method of discouraging poaching.

That would reduce the price of ivory and make poaching less lucrative.

Remember it takes several years to get tusks or ivory from an elephant, so ‘flooding’ the market with ivory would have a depressing effect on prices. One could argue this will only be for a while before the price picks up again. We can do more to increase the supply of ivory.

One method which everyone seems to discourage is to make trade in ivory legal. More people will start conservancies, keep elephants and cull them when they are old enough and sell ivory. In the long run, the price of ivory will be so low that it would make no economic sense to poach.

We have the perfect weather for elephants and other endangered species. We could even start chamas to keep elephants, rhinos, lions and other endangered species. Asians have domesticated the elephant, why can’t we? Warthog and hippo teeth can also be used to make the items made from ivory.

We could even “mine” mammoth tusks buried in frozen Siberia.

Peter and Diana Low, two conservationists based in Naivasha, noted: “If the supply was carefully regulated through a multilateral approach under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), revenues derived through this legitimate trade could be used to eliminate poaching and illegal supply of the commodity.

Arguably it should be easier to extinguish an illegal supply than it would be to attempt to extinguish a demand which has been established over hundreds of years and which is being forced underground through making trade in the commodity illegal.”

The demand for ivory is guaranteed, driven by cultural beliefs and surprisingly rising affluence. The rise of East Asian economies has to large extent fuelled the demand for ivory, which is used to make artefacts and status symbols. That cultural belief is hard to change.

That is not different from female genital mutilation (FGM), which has persisted despite all the bans, and even jail terms. My dad spent four months in jail over FGM in 1957. Do not enquire beyond that... It is a cultural issue and getting a substitute would take a long time. We cannot get a substitute for ivory too.

Trade in ivory also mimics drug trafficking. High Demand and low supply (due to illegality) keeps prices high and business booming. Are you surprised by the call to legalise marijuana?

Poaching is driven by economics. Why not use economics to reduce it? After all jail terms have not been effective, we are burning more ivory.

Conserving the elephant and other endangered species is an obligation that cuts across social classes, cultures and nations. We need the cooperation of all the players to keep these animals safe. We are dealing with an old problem. The Romans valued ivory and led to decimation of elephant herds in North Africa. At the turn of the last century, herds of elephants roamed the savannahs attracting big game hunters and adventurers like former US President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909.

We may not return to that romantic age, but striking a balance with nature is our obligation. Why should the most intelligent being in the universe fail to take care of the lesser intelligent beings like elephants?

Conservation seems a high end activity. Could devolving it to hoi polloi make it more effective? Ever seen a demo against killing elephants akin to that against IEBC?

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